Excellent Mystery Audio CD
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A pleasing and unusual mixture of suspense and historical fiction.―EVENING STANDARD --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
About the Author
Ellis Peters is one of the pseudonyms of Edith Pargeter who wrote several books under her own name and also Peter Benedict, Jolyon Carr and John Redfern. She was the recipient of the Crime Writers Association and the Cartier Diamond Dagger Award. She died in 1995. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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After the abbey at Winchester is burned down, two new monks arrive at Shrewsbury -- Brother Humilis, a famous ex-crusader, and Brother Fidelis, a mute young boy who follows him and cares for him. It also turns out that Humilis received some truly horrible wounds during the Crusades that are slowly killing him, and have left him basically castrated. Because of his injury, he ended his engagement to a rich young girl named Lady Julian and became a monk.
However, an old friend of his arrives at the abbey and asks for his blessing in wooing Julian... only to find that while her brother says she became a nun, there is no trace of her becoming one. Cadfael is brought into the investigation, with only some pieces of jewelry as the clues to where she has gone -- but it soon becomes clear that one of the monks is more than he appears.
This book ends with a marriage prayer, and honestly that isn't surprising. "An Excellent Mystery" revolves around marriage, thwarted love and how true love can be divorced from sex -- on one hand you have the deep love between Fidelis and Humilis, and on the other you have a bisexual monk's obsessions and with Rhun and Fidelis (which are all about physical attraction and rage, with no actual love).
And it's some of Peters' cleverest plotting since EVER: she brings in all sorts of unexpected twists and clues that seem to point towards a straightforward murder mystery, only to double the story back at the climax. And she writes in a rich, antiquated style that seems to match the mellow medieval setting, as well as some depictions of what happened to some of the crusaders who were less fortunate than Cadfael.
The one downside: the story's biggest twist (and the backstory behind it) stretch credibility to the snapping point. Without revealing too much, it's hard to imagine how two different characters could develop such passionate, true feelings for other people they had barely met. It's just too much.
However, Peters' characterizations are excellent -- the warm, paternal Cadfael sits in the middle of all these events, and we get to see some of his old warrior blood stirring. The well-named Humilis and Fidelis are powerful depictions of a dying, ruined warrior who has made peace with his impending death, and a quiet boy with a secret. And Brother Urien is a complex character as well -- Peters makes you both despise and pity him.
"An Excellent Mystery" is indeed an excellent mystery -- sweet, confusing, and a little too romantic for its own good. Not the best-known of Peters' Cadfael mysteries, but certainly worth reading.
Peters books are a pleasure to read. She exhibits an elegant turn of phrase that. As someone else here has already remarked, she makes the "grim and gritty middle ages" sound like someplace you might actually want to live. And this is one of her better plots. I figured out what was going on about halfway through, but only because I got an unintentional hint from someone who had already read the book. Even so, it was a pleasure to watch the story unfold.
Elegant style and clever plotting aside, however, the story is a bit over-romanticized. For example, at one point Nicholas rides non-stop from Winchester to Shrewsbury, through both day and night and, finally, through a storm. He "must get his tale at once to the ears of authority" and he "dared not stop hating, or the remaining grief became more than he could stand." All this intense feeling over a girl he had only met once, three years earlier. Sorry if this makes me a chauvinist, but clearly this is a woman writing about how women wish men felt about them. This is the mystical ideal of chivalrous love. It isn't how a young man would really feel under such circumstances. This is typical of Peters and it doesn't really hurt the story, but it is a bit gushy and you can tell a woman wrote it. For a male reader, it's just a little over the top.
Peters is a charming writer. She paints a vivid, if somewhat romanticized, picture of life in the 1100's. Cadfael and the rest of her characters are congenial and her stories are light, but entertaining. The mysteries are sometimes a bit transparent, but not this one. This is one of her better ones. Cadfael fans will definitely enjoy it. Others should keep in mind that this is definitely a romantic mystery. Also, if you haven't read a Cadfael mystery before, you should consider starting at the beginning of the series. That said, I recommend "An Excellent Mystery" to those who like this type of story. It's better than most.
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